The Winonan

Film in review: “12 Strong”

Blake Gasner, film reporter

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From the years 2001 to 2016, the U.S. lost 2,271 troops in Afghanistan, while the local allied Afghan security and Northern Alliance lost 38,266 troops and the opposing Taliban lost around 60,000 troops. It’s very easy to think that we were just fighting this war for the Afghan people but that is simply not the case. The Afghans were right alongside U.S. troops throughout much of the violence that erupted during the campaign for Afghanistan and took even heavier casualties. This was the war for their country, neighborhoods and homes.

“12 Strong” shows this on the big screen better than just about any war film I’ve seen. This was surprising to me, as the image of an American on horseback has been synonymous with the quintessential All-American cowboy who will always be the one to save the day, rescue the damsel and destroy the enemy. In other words, a movie poster that showcases American soldiers riding horseback into battle immediately set off alarms in my head that this would be just another story of heroic AMERICAN patriotism in battle against overwhelming odds, which is not a bad thing, it’s just simply been done before (many, many, many times).

What “12 Strong” does differently, and achieves quite powerfully, is its attention to the alliance between both Americans and Afghans, the cultural barriers this presents, as well as the sacrifices both make, especially the Afghans themselves, during the fighting. The focus of this film is certainly on the heroics of the first American soldiers who bravely entered the fight post 9/11, but the spotlight refreshingly still does not shy away from the local peoples’ fight as well.

This is the major distinguishing factor that keeps “12 Strong” unique from its predecessors. The characters are given effective portrayals by a solid cast featuring Chris Hemsworth ( “Thor”), Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel,” “ The Shape of Water”), Michael Peña (“End of Watch,” “Fury”), Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) and Navid Negahban (“Homeland”). But beyond Hemsworth’s Captain Nelson, Negahban’s General Dostum and their own dynamic as two leaders hesitant to leap into the same boat together, the characters aren’t given much narrative substance to add to their portrayals. Alongside the lackluster characters, the real selling point—the action and visuals—is slightly underwhelming as well.

Given this story is a re-telling of a recently declassified, true event, it’s hard to pick on the “characters” since they are real people, and it’s equally hard to pick on the “action” because if you research the history of this battle you’ll quickly learn that it was an overwhelming military success and therefore not easy to present in armrest-clenching tension. I acknowledge this, but at the same time I must recognize that the repetitive nature of the first several skirmishes presented in the film seem to numb audience members down for the action that follows in the climactic battle. The build-up to arriving at the front lines is wonderfully paced, but the build-up to the singular event that inspired this film, the actual battle that brought these men their first decisive victory of the war, is drawn out far too long. This, however, is not saying the final battle itself is unsatisfactory as it’s actually extremely tense and neurotic (the sound design and visuals immerse you in the fray quite potently), but there are pacing missteps throughout the middle portion of the film that hinder the impact of a great climax.

Although a mixed bag at times, “12 Strong” achieves its goal of conveying these soldiers’ story to us in often inspiring and nail-biting fashion. You will no doubt walk out of the theater feeling authentic admiration for what these men achieved.

Consensus: If in the mood for a war film that explores not just a historical event but an eye-opening historical relationship between two groups of people separated by culture and geography, while offering up its own share of thrills on the side, “12 Strong” is a good movie for you! 3.5/5 stars

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